There are few video games out there which outstand expectation. Some games which are expected to be great aren’t even good, and some games which are expected to just be good end up being fantastic.
Looking through Amazon with my Mother to see what games I should get for my birthday present that year – a birthday which included the original Xbox console back in 2004/05, no less – we managed to glance at a few which looked pretty great; judging much of the game on the description, cover, and screenshots, since there was little to go off apart from those and a few reviews. We did, however, find some games which would end up being some of my favourite titles of all time. Some which still surprise me to this day, showing how good a console the Original Xbox was with its exclusives.
Games like Fable and Halo 1 and 2 absolutely blew me away. Fable was a British RPG with great humour, dark storytelling and addictive combat which got me playing for hours on end. As for Halo 1 and 2… I don’t feel the need to explain. Lest to say that they both became a weekly addiction in my younger years. KOTOR 2’s unbelievably advanced story and characters for its time also made a huge impact on my gaming space.
But a game which had no right to be as good as it was, considering that it was a movie-tie-in/spin-off game related to The Chronicles of Riddick franchise, was Escape from Butcher Bay – still one of the best Xbox originals, without question. I don’t think we’ve had as good a movie tie-in as Escape from Butcher Bay, and neither do I think that we’ve had a tie-in game which actually expands the franchise by being a completely different story to the one shown in the film, although still in such an authentic way.
The fact that Butcher Bay is mentioned in a few lines in the film, and that those lines trigger this entire story-arc, is a testament to how you can expand a universe without overlapping in it. Not just witnessing this legendary escape, but engaging in it, causing it and, ultimately, living it.
There were so many factors that made Butcher Bay an incredible first-person action/stealth game even to this day: the jaw-dropping graphics which made you feel every punch and smell every ounce of blood, as well as the, thankfully unknown, smeared substances on the walls. And you can also include the lighting effects which allowed you to hide in the shadows, before breaking your enemy’s neck by using your newly shined eyes – a key point of Riddick’s existence which is actually explained within the game.
The surprisingly fleshed out characters and incredible voice-acting, backed up by a sound script, all stood out on their own but were also committed to the world that they participated in. All were light years ahead of their time considering that the game in question released back in June 2004. It seems like a lifetime but was just 15 years ago.
Revisiting the game now, it’s clear that some things have aged poorly despite the remaster brought to Xbox 360 with its sibling game Assault on Dark Athena – another dream come true to have not just a remaster of one of the best Original Xbox games brought to the 360, but a brand new title within the same package as well. The graphics, for instance, show themselves, as well as some of the lines being slightly too cheesy even for a Riddick game.
The gameplay can be a bit wonky with its aim and some of the characters are slightly predictable, while the blood effects aren’t great anymore either. But again, for the time when it was released, everything was absolutely fantastic. From the very first moment you begin to play, you start to grasp the passion of The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and the execution that they achieved. The tutorial, for instance, is Riddick imagining his escape plan when the ship which has captured him touches down at Butcher Bay. A lengthy and detailed plan which is ultimately frivolous is still entertaining to play through to understand the mechanics and the world.
Sadly, Riddick doesn’t get a chance to escape as soon as he lands – mainly because that would be a rather short game. Rather, Johns hands him over to Butcher Bay’s effectively despising warden, Hoxie. Instead, he has to navigate through one of a few areas which revolve around Riddick doing favours for inmates, getting to know their disgusting habits, and committing a few crimes while the cameras are off so that he can progress with escaping this maximum-security prison.
These sections were some of my favourite quest-based areas in any game I played up to that point. The loose but firm hand-holding allowed you to enjoy discoveries within the area without it being highlighted on your HUD. Yes it was extremely simplistic, but it helped you immerse yourself within the nihilistic environment.
Hierarchies exist more prominently than ever, with inmates fighting over cigarette packets, pride, and drugs, whilst the guards are killing with little justification, or worse, turning a blind eye for a favour or two. All of these interactions with the inmates are ever-more interesting to see because of Riddick’s reaction to people’s opinions and their desires of him.
The beauty of playing as Riddick is that you always feel in control. You know that Riddick knows how to get out of the situation, and even if he doesn’t, he will. That being said, make the wrong move while the guards and cameras are watching you and you won’t last long. Even with a homemade shiv or two.
The weapons feel sparse and hard to find, making them feel vital to your survival. Once you navigate through these open areas full of side-quests and collectables you will then have to battle your way through sewers, mines, guard barracks, gang warfare and more to escape from Butcher Bay. Fighting through hour-long battle sections to then lose everything you found in the next open area helps keep you motivated to find resources to survive – and hopefully thrive.
Every aspect of this game’s mechanics and lore-building reinforces the vision of Butcher Bay. For instance, the characters in their cells will detail intricacies about other characters and where you might be able to find USD (money) to buy cigarette packets (the addictive collectables which unlocked concept art, developer photos and more) or health to aid you in the combat-heavy acts of the game. The health system, by the way, revolves around 2 needles ramming into Riddick’s throat, leaving no doubt to question that the developers wanted you to feel the heavy dosage of depression and hopelessness within this dire yet surprisingly charismatic prison every step of the way.
There are obvious inspirations such as Escape from Alcatraz and The Great Escape which Butcher Bay plays allegiance to. But the great thing about this game, as I have said over ten times now, is its commitment to the Riddick world. It felt like a 5-10-hour long new Riddick movie. Except you got to play as Riddick.
I must have played the first couple of hours of this game tens of times because I found it so overwhelmingly atmospheric – similar to my experience with the beginning of Fallout 3, but, hey, that is a story for another day. The story, for now, is that if you’re a fan of FPS, and/or the new Wolfenstein games (the core team behind these old Riddick games) then Butcher Bay is an absolute must-play.
It will surprise you, thrill you, and indulge your inner killer. I would love for you to play through one of the best Original Xbox games now and let me know what you think, whether you’re a Riddick fan or not. I think you might fall in love with its brutality and nihilistic undertones. If you’re into that sort of thing.